The people of Provence have been raising sheep for centuries. You see flocks of them all over the countryside, grazing under the watchful eye of shepherds. But Provencal summers are scorching hot and sheep have heavy wool coats so they’re moved to cooler pastures.
The transhumance in Provence
The answer to dealing with the heat, is the transhumance, the great migration of sheep to cool mountain pastures for the summer. Historically, this meant a walk of hundreds of miles, to the mountains of Piedmont in Italy. Sheep went through village after village, where residents would celebrate the thousands of them marching past.
This tradition died out in the 1960s and 1970s, as shepherds began to move their flocks by truck. It was a lot easier on the sheep and certainly on the shepherds! But throughout France, in towns like St-Rémy-de-Provence, the tradition was reborn in the 1980s, with festivals that celebrated the sheep and their guardians.
The transhumance of St-Rémy-de-Provence
St-Rémy, which today holds one of the most famous of these festivals, began with a decidedly modest affair in 1984. In the years since then it has grown into a huge event held each year on Whit Monday, where the thousands of sheep are outnumbered by even more tourists. If you are nearby, it is absolutely worth making a detour for.
The festival includes a giant brocante (market for secondhand goods,) where you can find charming local items at excellent prices. And a sheepdog trial is held outside of town, where the border collies and Pyrenean shepherds and the rest can show their stuff. But the heart of the event is the transhumance, held late in the morning.
The oldest part of St-Rémy is circled by a ring road, lined with shops and cafés. As the hour of the transhumance approaches, all of the café tables near the road are packed with excited tourists, while many more line the road all around the old town. Then finally, music plays on the town’s loudspeakers to announce the start, and here come the sheep!
Led by shepherds, dogs, horses and donkeys, the procession makes its way around the town not once but twice. Thousands and thousands of sheep go past, along with the occasional goat, moving fast and packed so closely together that it’s like a river of sheep flowing by. You hear them bleating, you catch a whiff of their animal odor, and on a rare cold day you even feel the heat rising off all those many bodies.
The crowd oohs and aahs and snaps picture after picture. Kids reach out to touch the sheep as they go by, marveling at how thick their coats are. The transhumance is a piece of living history, a link to Provence’s rural past, and something you won’t forget.
And then the sheep are gone! The crowd disperses, the town goes back to normal, and everyone has lunch and talks about what they’ve just seen. But just remember that when you cross the street, there’s a secret the locals learned long ago: after thousands of sheep have marched past, be careful where you step!
Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Silicon Valley and Provence. He is the author of One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence and Are We French Yet? Keith & Val’s Adventures in Provence. Read more at Life in Provence.